In my opinion, one of the biggest struggles for a writer can be deciding when it’s time to move on. We all have stories that are close to our heart, but for one reason or another, the timing, or the market, isn’t right for that book. It can be difficult to put that idea away, but once we make that choice it can open doors to new possibilities.
In today’s W.O.W., Karen Fortunati shares how she made this difficult choice . She had a deep love for her first story, an MG Fantasy, but realized after some difficulty that it was time to move on to a new idea. That new project turned into her debut, THE WEIGHT OF ZERO which will release in the fall of 2016.
Many thanks to Karen for sharing her writing odyssey today…
Amy: When did you first begin seriously writing with the intent of wanting to be published?
Karen: Five years ago, I started a middle grade fantasy story. This was my first attempt at novel writing and I worked on nothing else besides this one story. Now, I absolutely loved this story (still do) but the problem was that I was the only one. After getting query rejections numbering thirty or forty or maybe even more (probably more) over a three year period, I decided to begin a Young Adult story.
Amy: When did you complete your first Young Adult manuscript?
Karen: I got the idea for The Weight of Zero while attending a full manuscript workshop organized by Kathy Temean in September of 2012. (She runs one or two workshops every year and also has a super helpful blog: https://kathytemean.wordpress.com. Kathy is the former Regional Advisor of the New Jersey SCBWI, a wonderful person and writer and an amazing resource.) As part of the workshop, Kathy had scheduled a first page session. Attendees could present a first page and get professional and group feedback. I had nothing else besides my middle grade manuscript that had already been workshopped. When I told Kathy, she said to write something new. So I did. It was the first page of The Weight of Zero. During the following year, I let the story brew and wrote the first chapter, then a synopsis and then character summaries. By the end of 2013, this story fully grabbed hold of me. I put aside my other manuscript and I finished it in the fall of 2014.
Amy: How laborious/frustrating was the query process for you?
Karen: For my middle grade manuscript, the three year query process was demoralizing and discouraging. (I remember getting one rejection back in less than two hours.) It was completely different this time around with The Weight of Zero. I had early agent interest and an offer from Sara Megibow within four weeks of sending her my query.
Amy: How many agents did you query for THE WEIGHT OF ZERO?
Karen: I probably queried around fifteen agents.
Amy: Did you receive instantaneous response or did you have to wait for requests/rejections?
Karen: I did not receive any instantaneous responses like my middle grade query. The requests for partials or fulls took approximately one week although one agent got back to me the next day.
Amy: The subject matter in THE WEIGHT OF ZERO is an important one. What influenced you to write the manuscript?
Karen: In a nutshell, The Weight of Zero is about seventeen-year-old Catherine’s struggle to accept her bipolar disorder. After an excruciating episode of depression, Catherine equates her diagnosis to a death sentence. Deeming suicide her only option, Catherine hopes she can complete her one item bucket list before her depression returns. But her plan gets complicated by a new medication, new therapy and new relationships. Life begins to blossom again but the issue is whether Catherine can realize it in time.
I was moved to write this story for several reasons. First, I’ve witnessed the effects of mental illness and addiction in family members and friends and seen the impact of suicide. In addition, my husband is a child psychiatrist. Through him, I’ve learned about different mental disorders, the role of medications and the positive outcomes that are possible with good clinicians and meaningful therapy. My goal was to write a story of hope to those suffering with mental disorders. And I wanted to do this by getting into the nitty gritty of care and all that goes into it – both the practical and emotional aspects. Another goal was to expose some of the stigma that a mental disorder carries and just how heavy the weight of that discrimination can be.
Amy: What was your call like with your agent, Sara Megibow? How did you know she was the right fit for you?
Karen: I had done my research and knew that Sara was well-respected and experienced and savvy. From reading her Tweets, I also sensed a tremendous enthusiasm and desire to help writers combined with the utmost professionalism and graciousness. Talking to Sara confirmed all this but I knew she was the right agent when she perfectly summarized my manuscript, honing in on the points that were most important to me. She got exactly what the story was about. About three weeks after formally starting to work with Sara, we had an offer from Kate Sullivan, a dream editor at Delacorte.
I’m thrilled to be represented by Sara. There’s a tremendous sense of teamwork at KT Literary and Sara is amazing – always available to explain things or assist me in this brand new process. I could not have found a better partner in this publication journey!
Amy: As many writers know the publishing world is very hard to break into. What was the one thing you did to help garner agent attention?
Karen: I put aside my middle grade fantasy and started something very, very different. Based on my experiences and what I’ve learned from my husband, I knew the story would cover some aspect of mental illness. I was lucky – and I think this is what garnered agent attention – because the subject matter was in demand. In addition to a relevant topic, my writing had improved significantly from my first novel attempt. (See point #3 below.) Finally, I put tremendous effort into my query, studying examples of successful queries online to get a better sense of what works.
Amy: If you were giving a keynote speech at a writer’s conference what would be the most important piece of advice you would share?
Karen: These are the four things that helped me tremendously:
- Joining SCBWI! Attend whatever conferences, meet ups or critique groups that you can. Writing is a lonely business and only people in the same boat can truly understand.
- Reading. When I first heard this advice five years ago, I scoffed. But now I understand. Once you begin writing, you read differently. I inhaled Contemporary YA and adult books as I wrote Weight. I learned about structure and pacing and voice. I usually listen to audio books and would play the first chapter multiple times to see how much was unveiled and what made me want to keep going and why I felt the way I did about a character. Some of my favorites were Reality Boy, Ask the Passengers, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, The Dark Days of Hamburger Halpin and Looking for Alaska. And any book by Jonathan Tropper.
- Finding a Writer’s Buoy. A buoy can be anything that keeps you, yes, floating/ writing. It’s the one thing or idea you can cling to when you’re ready to slam down your laptop for good. For me, it was this story on Kathryn Stockett and her tenacity in getting The Help sold. http://www.more.com/kathryn-stockett-help-best-seller. For whatever reason, this story struck a chord and I promised myself that I would send at a minimum 50 queries out.
- Sitting down and writing. And not waiting for the muse to strike. I learned she shows up sooner or later.
Karen is a writer of contemporary, realistic YA. The subject of her first book, The Weight of Zero, is mental illness, specifically bipolar disorder, and it explores the shame, stigma and anxiety that often complicate the management of this chronic condition. The issue is personal to Karen, having witnessed the impact of depression and bipolar disorder in relatives and friends. In addition, her experiences with children as an attorney definitely influenced the writing of this story. All of this inspired her to write a story of hope for those who struggle with mental illness. For more on Karen, check out her website or follow her on Twitter – @karenfortunati.